Dear Smartphone and Readers…

How mobile phones have evolved from bulky devices with antennas to small smartphones.

“To Wish You a Happy New Decade…” First there were Car Phones. Big bulky boxes carried in the trunk of a car for making an occasional call from the side of the road. Mobile phones with antennas succeeded them and gave rise to Phablets and Blackberries. During the past decade, many of us replaced our Cellphones with Smartphones. And, predictions for the next ten years? Less keyboard, more voice. Lovingly Yours, Dear Ms. Device.

Last Minute Shoppers & Phone

There are more people on phones this now…and less people in stores.

The 31 days of december are color blocked with six themes: e.g. pretend to work days, actually shop (Dec 24), and after christmas, destroy you body with food and alcohol
Credit: Matt Shirley

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it me, or is there a trend to do holiday shopping and prep at the finish line, say the final week before Christmas or Chaunakah? I have barely sent out cards, barely gone to stores, and barely ordered online. But, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the holidays and searching for gift ideas. Regina, Richmond

Dear Regina : When you say that you have spent a lot of time thinking about the holidays and searching, I presume that effort has been online. That would indeed be consistent with two last-minute trends described on ThinkWithGoogle. Before shoppers head to stores, they plan the trips online, search out price, and study the store location and driving directions. These searches are increasingly mobile. (On CyberMonday about 1/3 of the online sales were made on phone.) ThinkWithGoogle says online browsing is inspirational, a source for gift ideas, and that apparently peaks just one week before Christmas.

But, to answer your question of whether we procrastinate more because of phones, there is a case. With next day and two day delivery guarantees, shoppers can hold-off for longer. Some may hope to score a better deal, and for others, it means accumulating more paychecks before buying, keeping all options open, and maybe setting aside time to be home when the packages arrive.

Sometimes, it’s just hard to know the factors: when I grew up my family had a tradition of shopping for new winter coats on Christmas Eve. I don’t think it was about procrastination as much as the fact that coats went on sale then and it was nice to have new ones for the holiday.

In current times, road traffic may have a lot to do with putting off shopping until the last week. It is stressful driving and difficult to find a parking space at the malls. So information gathering is faster, better, and more informed when it takes place online. At the point of purchase, shoppers pick a location that is closest, check the store inventory, and visit when the travel time is best.

The presence of phones really does change our habits and everyday routines, so we should expect that they will change how we think about a holiday and share it. Maybe a future Christmas will put less emphasis on running between stores and accumulating presents and place more weight on taking holiday images, sharing symbols of the season, or just staying home!

Phones, Fire, and Landlines

"We interrupt this program"....text, found on a TV screen, says that you are seeing this message as part of the emergency broadcast system.

Dear Smartphone interrupts this column to provide an announcement from the Emergency Preparedness System….

In Northern California, many households keep two phones: there is the regular cell-phone, and then a separate landline for emergencies. The landline is expected to be the backup when cell towers go down. It is the lifeline to receive an call or reach ‘911’.

During the October, 2019 fires, these landlines often failed…alongside with the PG&E electrical service. It turns out that ‘POTS’, which stands for Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, is not as reliable as it used to be. Here’s why:

Fiber Optics: Look Again

With the growth of the Internet, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables. But, fiber optics don’t have the same ability as copper lines to maintain service indefinitely when there is a power failure Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station.

Under everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. However, fiber optics (and coaxial cable) depend on electricity to power the system. When there is a complete electricity shutdown the fiber optics fail, unless there is an extensive generator for electrical backup.

POTS (plain old phone service) NOT

Today, when households keep a landline, they expect to get the reliability and backup of ‘POTS’. But, it’s often not the case. Many ‘landlines’ now transmit over fiber optics instead of copper lines. According to a valuable survey done shortly after the 2017 fires in Northern California, 85% of those who subscribed to a landline did not know their POTS used fiber optics.

It gets worse, because many users with POTS service, have upgraded their phone receiver (the phone itself), not realizing that it also requires backup power. These wall mounted or desk phones plug into an electrical source. When the electricity cuts off, these phones can operate for up to eight hours if they have an internal battery. However, that assumes the battery is present, fresh, and charged. In the fore-mentioned survey, 28% of the respondents said they just expected the phones to work and only 4% had ordered an optional back-up battery.

Not a Wired Fix

The FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission are fully aware of these issues but there is not a single fix with the demise of copper wires. The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, often use fiber optics to link between Central Stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages. WSJ reporter Sarah Krouse indicates that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to wireless carriers in September about how they were preparing for fires and power shutdowns in California.

Apparently Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all replied detailing the types of backup power available at their sites and the equipment that could quickly be deployed there in the event of an outage. But, it didn’t work out that way for Northern California

‘Know” your Landline

The big picture is that the newest technology brings households a multitude of communication channels, but deny them confidence in a reliable system that operates during emergencies. In practical terms, redundancy counts, so having both a “landline” and a cell phone is clearly better than having just one option. Knowing whether the “landline” operates on fiber optics or copper cable is also useful. And, knowing that you need a spare battery (or generator) to backup the landline could make the difference between no-signal and safety. That said, it’s a complicated network to add to a California’s household brimming emergency prep kit.